Hunger of Memory
Hunger of Memory
by Richard Rodriguez
THE LITERARY WORK
An autobiography set in California, New York, and England from the 1940s to the 1970s; published in 1982.
As he pursues his academic career, Richard Rodriguez, a child of Mexican immigrants to the United States, ponders how his education has distanced him from his parents. In the course of his reflections he articulates his attitude toward the debates concerning both affirmative action and bilingual education programs in education.
Richard Rodriguez was born on July 31, 1944, to Mexican immigrants Leopoldo and Victoria Rodriguez. In spite of the difficulties he faced as a Spanish-speaking child in the United States, Rodriguez excelled in school and eventually earned a Ph.D. in English literature. In 1976, rather than accept one of many job offers from prestigious universities, Rodriguez postponed a career as a professor. Although confident in the quality of his work, he could not quiet the suspicion that universities sought him primarily because he was a member of an ethnic minority. Rodriguez spent the next six years writing his autobiography, Hunger of Memory.
The postwar Mexican American community
Like many other segments of American society, Mexican American culture experienced numerous changes as a result of World War II. The drafting of an enormous segment of the male population sent many Mexican American youths to war, but since such a large number of American soldiers were sent overseas, a vacuum in the labor force was created. This caused a sudden growth in Mexican immigration to the United States. They came under the Bracero Program, which permitted Mexican laborers to enter the United States temporarily to join work crews on farms and in urban industries.
Both the permanent residents and the braceros suffered anti-Mexican discrimination that persisted in the postwar years. Public facilities like swimming pools denied access to Mexicans or limited their and other minorities’ use of the pool until the day before the water was drained to prevent “contamination” (Camarillo, p. 79). Movie theaters at the time restricted Mexican Americans to separate seating sections, and schools practiced segregation. In California the school segregation lasted ostensibly until it was outlawed by Méndez v. Westminster in 1946, yet little could be done after that to end de facto segregation. Mexican American families mostly lived in segregated neighborhoods, and so their children continued to attend segregated schools as the decades progressed. Meanwhile, more than two-thirds of the community’s males and almost as many females continued to labor in unskilled or semiskilled jobs, making only modest progress in the 1950s, when Richard Rodriguez was coming of age.
The 1960s promised to hasten change. While Mexican Americans had begun organizing on their own behalf in earlier decades, they did so in much greater numbers in the 1960s, giving birth to a genuine Chicano movement. Statistics were published showing that the high school dropout rate for Mexican Americans had reached 50 percent in many areas, while the poverty level in Spanish surname households was twice that of Anglo households. Community activists resolved to change these realities.
From the 1960s into the 1970s Chicano artists and writers championed their Mexican heritage and exposed the plight of Mexican Americans, painting murals on barrio walls and performing plays such as Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (also covered in Literature and Its Times). Determined to win decent working conditions, farm laborers, led by César Chávez, went on strike in 1965 in a protest that received great public attention and support. At the same time there arose numerous Chicano community organizations that addressed immediate concerns such as job training and education. In the 1970s the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), under the leadership of Vilma Martinez, battled a number of issues in the courts over school desegregation, job discrimination, and bilingual education. Other activists, expressing concern about the relatively few Chicanos among the country’s college and university population, pressed for special admission programs and federal grants or loans. And at the high school level, the Los Angeles teacher Salvador Castro led a protest in 1968 against overcrowded classrooms, too few Mexican American teachers, and a curriculum that ignored the contribution of Mexican Americans. Nearly 10,000 students joined him.
All these efforts produced results. Chicano studies programs appeared on college campuses and the number of Chicano faculty increased. Nevertheless, the high school dropout rate remained high, with nearly half of all Chicano students leaving high school before graduation and less than 20 percent continuing on to the college or university level in the mid-1970s, which is the last decade in which Hunger of Memory takes place.
During the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s educators and legislators in the United States debated the issue of bilingual education. Whereas some recent immigrants, most of Hispanic or Asian decent, argued that the nation had an obligation to educate their children in their own native language, advocates of “English only” responded that English is the nation’s official language and that new immigrants to the United States should, like those who came before them, learn English. It is, in fact, a misconception that English is the nation’s official language—the United States has no official language, though English is dominant.
During the early decades of the twentieth century, an influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as China and Japan roused xenophobic sentiment in the United States. There was a reactionary debate about the potentially “harmful” effect of such immigration on American culture. During World War I, as anti-German sentiment swept the nation, advocates of a law making English the official language exploited this paranoia to convince legislators to pass decrees banning the use of German in classrooms, public meetings, and even in church. (These decrees affected laws that had been passed by various states in the 1800s, allowing schools to hold classes in German, Norwegian, or Spanish.) Wartime anxiety fomented an intolerance of all minority languages. Thirty-four states forbade the use of any language other than English in the classroom. Several states even outlawed foreign language study in the elementary grades. In 1924 Congress went so far as to establish immigration quotas favorable to applicants from northwestern Europe and to explicitly bar immigration from Asia.
In 1965, however, immigration reform legislation was passed by Congress that revoked the edicts of 1924 and raised the ceiling on the number of immigrants; it also gave preference to applicants with relatives already residing in the United States. The result was a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Between 1971 and 1980, Latin American immigrants comprised 40 percent of the legal immigrants to the United States, and Asian arrivals comprised 35 percent.
During the political and social turmoil of the 1960s many of politically conscious Hispanics and Asians, encouraged by the civil rights movement among African Americans, began to emphasize, rather than downplay, ethnic solidarity and cultural differences. The Hispanic activists argued that there was a need for either bilingual education in the public schools or at least supplementary English classes for minority language students. Bolstering their argument was a 1965-66 survey by the National Education Association that documented the high failure and dropout rates among Hispanic American students in Tucson, Arizona.
In 1968 President Lyndon B. Johnson responded by signing the Bilingual Education Act to aid children who were “educationally disadvantaged because of their inability to speak English” (Crawford, p. 40). Although Senator Ralph Yarborough, the sponsor of the act, had insisted that his intention was to make children fully literate in English, many Hispanic activists viewed the ruling as an endorsement of bilingual programs. A debate arose between sides—one who favored children’s attending classes in both English and their parents’ tongue until graduation, and the other who favored programs that stressed rapid acquisition of English.
In 1974 the Supreme Court set the legal precedent on the matter with the ruling on the Lau v. Nichols case. Kinney Lau, a Chinese father distressed because his son was failing in school, had, with the help of attorney Edward Steinman, filed a class-action suit claiming that his child had been denied the “education on equal terms” (Crawford, p. 44) guaranteed by the Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954. The court agreed unanimously that, in the words of Justice William O. Douglas, “there is no equality of treatment... merely by providing students with the same facilities, textbooks, teachers and curriculum; for students who do not understand English are effectively foreclosed from any meaningful education” (Douglas in Crawford, p. 45).
By the time the Supreme Court decided the case, the plaintiffs had dropped their original demand for bilingual education, so the court never proceeded to delineate or deal with the question of what steps local schools should take to effect it. The Department of Education, however, issued guidelines in favor of a bilingual curriculum, which were used by the Office for Civil Rights to negotiate with local schools when they perceived the curriculum inadequate for minority language students. Faced with the prospect of losing federal funding, local schools had little choice but to comply. In various schools through the nation, and particularly in California, students began to attend classes in both English and another language, usually Spanish.
By the late 1970s, attitudes toward bilingual education had shifted. Various surveys suggested that bilingual programs did not help language minority students; moreover, they led to voluntary segregation among the students. In 1978 Congress responded to this and other disturbing news about the programs by passing amendments to the Bilingual Education Act. A language other than English could be used, Congress specified, only “to the extent necessary to allow a child to achieve competence in the English language” (Crawford, p. 51). All language programs were to be strictly transitional, rather than actually bilingual.
Bilingual education suffered even greater setbacks during the eight-year conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan.
“I think it is proper,” said the president, “that we have teachers equipped who can get at them in their own language and understand why it is they don’t get the answer to the problem and help them in that way. But it is absolutely wrong and against American concepts to have a bilingual education program that is now openly, admittedly dedicated to preserving their native language and never getting them adequate in English.”
(Reagan in Crawford, p. 53)
During the Reagan years, funding for education in general would drop 8 percent and spending related to bilingual education would drop 46 percent.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case not only abolished segregation in the nation’s public schools, but also paved the way for a proliferation of civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The culmination of a decade of protests and activism, this act made illegal virtually all forms of discrimination in public places on the basis of color, race, religion, sex, or national origin. The 1972 amendments to the act ensured that, from a legal standpoint, such discrimination was an injustice of the past.
Yet despite the legislation and other legal measures, discrimination still remained a problem within American society. Indeed, as civil rights activists shifted the focus of their movement from the South to the North, they began to perceive that legal equality hardly guaranteed practical equality. They realized, as Rodriguez points out, that even though no official restrictions denied blacks access to northern universities, for example, this freedom was mostly theoretical. Universities such as Princeton had long been open to blacks. “But the tiny number of nonwhite students. . . at such schools suggested that there was more. . . to consider” (Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory, p. 144)
To remedy this problem, civil rights activists and legislators devised “affirmative action” programs. This mandated that universities receiving public funds (and likewise, government contractors) give preferential treatment to minorities and women in admissions and hiring; it also specified that the institutions set timetables to eventually achieve a level of campus integration proportionate to the general population. The intention was to compensate for past discrimination.
Advocates of affirmative action met strident opposition. Skeptics disparaged the programs, calling affirmative action “reverse discrimination.” They insisted that both colleges and employers were simply filling quotas with sometimes unqualified candidates. Moreover, they argued that it was unfair for contemporary Caucasians to be forced to compensate for the crimes of their forefathers.
In 1977 the Supreme Court addressed some of this debate over affirmative action in the case of University of California Regents v. Bakke. Allan Bakke, a white, middle-class engineer, had applied to medical school at the University of California at Davis and been rejected. Angered, Bakke challenged the legality of the admissions program at UC-Davis, which reserved sixteen out of one hundred slots for minorities. The Supreme Court ruled that, in this particular case, Bakke had been unfairly discriminated against because of his race. The practice of setting aside a number of slots exclusively for minorities was, according to the court, unconstitutional. This ruling did not, however, challenge the legitimacy of all affirmative action programs. The court agreed, in a split decision, that a culturally deprived or disadvantaged applicant may, in spite of low scores on standardized tests, show more promise than an applicant from an affluent or educated background. Thus, affirmative action programs remained legal for the time being, though the Bakke ruling would stay controversial long after the publication of Hunger of Memory.
Richard Rodriguez grew up the son of Mexican immigrants in Sacramento, California. His parents had settled in the United States hoping to find prosperous work and build a home for their children. They soon discovered that both their lack of formal education and the pervasive stereotypes concerning Hispanic Americans made it difficult for them to secure comfortable jobs. Rodriguez’s mother worked as a typist, and his father at a succession of warehouse, cannery, and factory jobs.
As the only Hispanic student in his Roman Catholic elementary school, Richard remained more than normally timid and hesitated to speak when called upon. Disturbed by the boy’s silence, one of the teachers met with his parents to suggest that they speak English at home in order to improve their children’s chances of doing well in school. Richard’s parents resolved to follow the teacher’s advice, though they feared English would be more difficult for them than for their children.
The strategy worked. Yet while the clever children learned quickly, their parents stumbled over difficult words. Growing confident, Richard even began to volunteer to speak in class. His parents, however, encumbered by their years, did not pick up the language as rapidly. Richard noticed that when speaking English, he had to talk to his father slowly and select simple words.
As they grew older the Rodriguez children often challenged their parents’ ideas. “It’s what we were taught in our time to believe” (Hunger of Memory, p. 57), their mother answered when her kids disputed her convictions. She often mumbled that little children ought not to play with big ideas. More acute than these complaints was her objection that the children were growing distant. Often they would excuse themselves from the dinner table to retreat to their rooms and study, or pass their afternoons at the homes of white school friends. “Why aren’t we close anymore,” Richard’s mother would wonder, “more in the Mexican style?” (Hunger of Memory, p. 57). What Richard began to understand is that he had grown fluent not only in a language but also in a lifestyle that would remain foreign to his parents.
After graduating high school, Richard elected to study at Stanford, a university about 100 miles away. He completed an undergraduate degree in English literature, then enrolled at Columbia University in New York, where he earned a master’s degree. He subsequently returned to the West Coast, earning a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.
In order to do research for his dissertation, Richard journeyed to England. During his stay he began to realize that his decision to pursue an academic career was to some extent an act of social withdrawal. He was writing with a handful of academics throughout the world. “We formed an exclusive—eccentric!—society,” he realized (Hunger of Memory, p. 66). Richard felt particularly distant from his parents, who, he thought, might chuckle if they read the title of his dissertation on genre and Renaissance literature.
One day, a pang of nostalgia swept over Richard as he overheard some scholars at the British Museum speaking in hushed Spanish whispers, and he resolved to return home to visit his parents. Back in Sacramento, Richard took comfort in the many similarities between his parents and himself, which he had not previously noticed. He realized that he laughed like his mother and that he had his father’s watchful eyes. Yet he remained troubled by another realization—this very practice of noting the similarities between himself and his parents indicated how much he remained an academic. He was behaving like “a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen, searching for evidence of our ’cultural ties’ as we ate dinner” (Hunger of Memory, p. 160).
Richard returned to the academic world to find that, although he had not yet finished his dissertation, he had received job offers from prestigious universities. He had become the beneficiary of affirmative action programs. Hiring committees were vying for the qualified minority candidates in an effort to comply with affirmative action, which troubled him because he felt that he “was not really more socially disadvan-taged than the white graduate students in [his] classes” (Hunger of Memory, pp. 146-47).
Yet it was not until a confrontation with a Caucasian colleague that he considered in detail the impact of affirmative action. “It’s just not right,” his colleague complained,
None of this is fair. You’ve done some good work, but so have I. I’ll bet our records are just about even. But when you go looking for jobs this year, it’s a very different story. You’re the one who gets all the breaks. . . it’s all very simple. You’re a Chicano. And I am a Jew. . . . Once there were quotas to keep my parents out. . . . Now there are quotas to get you in. And the effect on me is the same as it was for them.
(Hunger of Memory, pp. 170-71)
Richard proceeded to reject the many job offers he had received. More difficult was the telephone call he made to his parents. All their lives they had toiled, goading their children to study hard and at the same time holding down jobs to provide for them. Richard had excelled and now had the chance to achieve his ambition of becoming a university professor. “I don’t know why you feel this way,” he father said. “We have never had any of the chances before.”
“We, he said,” Richard thought. “But he was wrong. It was he who had never had any chance before” (Hunger of Memory, p. 172).
At the time Rodriguez was composing his autobiography, educational institutions in the United States were embroiled in the controversy surrounding bilingual education and affirmative action. Rodriguez himself participated in the debate, publishing articles in which he offered his ideas on the premises and impact of these programs. In his autobiography, Hunger of Memory, he articulates his objections to both bilingual and affirmative action programs. These objections were to remain, even long after the publication of the autobiography, the fundamental arguments against affirmative action and bilingual education.
Although Rodriguez was suspicious of the opponents of bilingual education who vehemently decried the use of a language other than English in the public schools, he agreed that whatever classes might be taught in a language other than English should be offered with the goal of eventually integrating the students into classes taught in English. He believed that programs that promoted the use of two or more languages in school would only encourage the students to segregate themselves. Indeed, he argued, students who did not finish high school with a firm command of English could legitimately complain that they had been denied a sound education.
Rodriguez felt that affirmative action was a simplistic approach to a complex problem. The architects of affirmative action, he alleged, had failed to acknowledge that there existed significant class differences among the nation’s various ethnic minorities. Although he agreed that there were minority students in the United States who performed poorly in school because their parents were uneducated and offered no encouragement or because white teachers failed to encourage them, he pointed out that there were also well educated, affluent Hispanics who were not handicapped by poverty or prejudice. As Rodriguez explained,
The policy of affirmative action … [does not] distinguish someone like me (a graduate student of English, ambitious for a college teaching career) from a slightly educated Mexican-American who lived in a barrio and worked as a menial laborer, never expecting a future improved. Worse, affirmative action made me the beneficiary of his condition.
(Hunger of Memory, pp. 150-51)
Furthermore, Rodriguez pointed out, once admitted to a university, the beneficiaries of affirmative action programs floundered. Minority students who earned mediocre grades in high school were unprepared for the challenges of the university. Admissions officers would promote these students while ignoring this truth. “The conspiracy of kindness,” Rodriguez wrote, “became a conspiracy of uncaring.”
Cruelly, callously, admissions committees agreed to overlook serious academic deficiency. I knew students in college then barely able to read... bewildered by the requirement to compose a term paper... humiliated when they couldn’t compete with other students in seminars. There were contrived tutoring programs. But many years of inferior schooling could not be corrected with a crowded hour or two of instruction each week. Not surprisingly, among those students with very poor academic preparation, few completed their courses of study. Many dropped out, most blaming themselves for their failure.
(Hunger of Memory, p. 155)
Rodriguez finally concluded that, rather than help poor and uneducated minorities who suffered because of past and continuing racism, affirmative action merely obscured their plight. With a few blacks or Hispanics being pampered on college campuses across the nation, he contended, people would fail to notice the appalling state of the public schools in crime-ridden ghettos. The strategy of affirmative action did not in his view seriously address the educational dilemma of disadvantaged students. The most urgent need, as Rodriguez saw it, was for good early schooling.
After his last year at Stanford University, Rodriguez took a summer job in construction. Having planned to attend graduate school, he now welcomed an interlude of physical labor. Not only was he eager to meet the challenges of his friends who warned him, “You only think you know what it’s like to shovel for three hours a day” (Hunger of Memory, p. 131), but he also gleefully anticipated telling his father, after the summer was over that, in fact, he did know what “real work” was like.
Yet he came to realize that his summer excursion into the world of the menial laborer would not teach him what his father had meant by “real work.” He was not bound to the job as others were; in his case, it was a brief interlude and he, unlike his father, could foresee the day it would end.
Later that summer, the contractor hired a group of Mexican immigrants. Rodriguez realized that these Mexican immigrants were workers as his father had been. Listening to the loud, confident voice of the contractor speaking to the Mexicans, Rodriguez grew angry with himself. He could not, he concluded, shorten the distance he felt from them with a few weeks of physical labor. They were different from him.
Whatever his other intentions in writing an autobiography, Rodriguez meant to draw attention to poor people like these workers, minority members who had been overlooked by the architects of affirmative action. “You who read this act of contrition,” he writes, referring to his autobiography, “should know that by writing it I seek a kind of forgiveness” (Hunger of Memory, p. 152). It is not the forgiveness of the reader he seeks, but that of the minority members outside the universities, whose absence from them resulted in Rodriguez’s being classed as a minority student. He wishes they would read Hunger of Memory but doubts they ever will.
Readers disparaged or praised Hunger of Memory depending upon their own political opinions. However, most reviewers lauded Rodriguez’s talent as a writer. “Because Richard Rodriguez is an artist,” one critic wrote, “he has managed to tell a specific American story in a way that draws easily into the light certain universal truths about the process of growing up” (Donohue in Mooney, p. 1138). One critic found the chapters Rodriguez devoted to his childhood “uncannily sensitive to the nuances of language learning, the childhood drama of voices, intonations” (Zweig in May, p. 430). Particularly moving, according to another review, was Rodriguez’s insight that although his schooling had separated him from his parents, it gave him ways of speaking about and caring about that fact. “Beautifully written,” the critic asserted, “wrung from a sore heart, ’Hunger of Memory’ bears eloquent witness to this truth” (Comey in Mooney, p. 1138).
Camarillo, Albert. Chicanos in California: A History of Mexican Americans in California. San Francisco: Boyd & Fraser, 1984.
Crawford, James. Bilingual Education: History, Politics, Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: Bilingual Education Services, 1995.
Lang, Paul. The English Language Debate. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1995.
May, Hal, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vol. 110. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984.
Mooney, Martha, ed. Book Review Digest. Vol. 78. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1983.
Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory. New York: Bantam, 1982.
Simmons, Ron. Affirmative Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1982.
Stavans, Ilan. The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.